United States v. Townsend

Decision Date04 December 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14-4250,14-4250
PartiesUNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JAMES E. TOWNSEND Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit


File Name: 15a0788n.06



HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge. After pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a kilogram or more of heroin, which carries a 120-month mandatory minimum sentence, James Townsend was sentenced to 57 months' imprisonment pursuant to the Government's § 3553(e) motion. Townsend appeals, asserting that his sentence is procedurally and substantively unreasonable, and that the district court erred in refusing to consider both the § 3553(a) factors and the possibility of home detention. We AFFIRM.


Sometime in 2009, Townsend was introduced to co-defendant Michael Stephens, who was a point of contact in Dayton, Ohio, for a heroin-trafficking organization operated out of Michoacán, Mexico. Townsend eventually became involved in the conspiracy with Stephens and others to possess and distribute heroin. In furtherance of the conspiracy, Townsend made drug deliveries, transported couriers, dealt heroin, performed quality-control testing, wired drug proceeds, and recruited at least two others to wire drug proceeds to Mexico. Townsend was indicted along with fifteen others, including Stephens.

Townsend entered into a plea agreement. In exchange for his plea of guilty to the charge of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of a mixture or substance containing heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(A), the Government agreed to dismiss other counts, not file additional charges arising out of the same set of facts, not seek a 21 U.S.C. § 851 enhancement for Townsend's prior felony drug offense, recommend a reduction in the sentencing Guidelines offense level for acceptance of responsibility, and consider filing a motion for departure based on substantial assistance under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), and/or Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35. Townsend pled guilty as agreed, and the Government later filed a motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) for a downward departure, thus freeing the court to sentence below the mandatory minimum term based on Townsend's substantial assistance. The Government recommended the district court reduce Townsend's Guidelines range by ten percent.

The district court rescheduled sentencing several times following motions by Townsend or status conferences with the parties. At a status conference in January 2014, the district court explained that United States v. Williams, 687 F.3d 283 (6th Cir. 2012), created "a problem" because it held that in departing below a mandatory minimum sentence pursuant to the Government's § 3553(e)1 motion, a district court is limited to consideration of the value of thedefendant's substantial assistance and cannot properly consider other unrelated factors, including the § 3553(a) factors, even if thought relevant. (R. 880, PID 3343.) Thus, the district court concluded it could not consider factors such as Townsend's post-offense rehabilitation and the special needs of his youngest daughter. The district court noted that Townsend's assistance was "not much" and was "worth less than [the district court's] benchmark, which is 25 percent up or down." (R. 880, PID 3343.) The court explained that in order to arrive at a sentence that it found sufficient but no longer than necessary, as contemplated by § 3553(a), it would have to overvalue the substantial assistance: "If I want to give Mr. Townsend a 12-month sentence, I have to basically give him . . . 70, 80 percent reduction for Substantial Assistance, which is farcical . . . ." (R. 880, PID 3345.) Defense counsel agreed with the district court's understanding of Williams. The district court asked that the parties consider alternatives that would allow it to impose a lower sentence and rescheduled sentencing.

Townsend filed a supplemental sentencing memorandum proposing two solutions to the "irreconcilable conflict" that Townsend argued Williams created with 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). (R. 805, PID 2986.) The first was to withdraw Townsend's guilty plea so he could plead guilty to a lesser charge that would allow the district court to consider the § 3553(a) factors. The second alternative was to delay sentencing until at least November 1, 2014, to allow amendments to the drug-quantity tables to take effect and to allow time for the passage of proposed legislation that would reduce the applicable mandatory minimum.

At a subsequent status conference, the Government informed the court that it would not amend the charge against Townsend. Accordingly, the district court rescheduled sentencing to allow for the possibility that new legislation would reduce the applicable mandatory minimum.

By the time sentencing took place on December 1, 2014, Townsend had been released on his own recognizance for nearly four years. During that time, Townsend obtained employment at Delphi Automotive systems, where he had been promoted. In addition, he was making child-support payments for his daughter and was assisting in the care of elderly family members. Defense counsel began by summarizing Townsend's post-offense rehabilitation and argued that "to now take Mr. Townsend out of this community after the past three years, give or take, of what has been a law abiding conduct, it is frustrating." (R. 885, PID 3389-90.) Defense counsel stated he had been "thinking out of the box" and that he had contacted probation that day and proposed nine years of house arrest "because this Court could put Mr. Townsend in prison for a day and as a term of supervised release, give him whatever sentence this Court deems appropriate . . . . Cumbersome? Yes. Illegal, well, yes if it is not supervised release, it can't be straight out home detention. It must be as a term of supervised release." (R. 885, PID 3391-92.)

The district court explained that it was in agreement with Townsend regarding the appropriate length of the sentence but was required to impose a sentence "far in excess of that which [it] would have imposed [if it] had [] complete discretion in the matter." (R. 885, PID 3401-02.) Addressing Townsend's suggestion of one day of imprisonment followed by a lengthy term of home detention, the district court responded that "[i]f a sentence of one day imprisonment and nine years of home confinement were legal, . . . this being a Zone D case or sustainable on appeal and not to amount to gross abuse of discretion I might well seriously consider it." (R. 885, PID 3402.)

With a net offense level of 27 and a criminal history category of II, Townsend's Guidelines range would have been 78 to 97 months. But due to the statutory mandatory minimum, the district court correctly determined the Guidelines range to be 120 months. Thedistrict court then granted the Government's substantial assistance motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). Finding that Townsend's assistance "was less than what [the district court] would consider [its] informal base line," the district court nonetheless reduced the net offense level to 24, providing a sentencing range of 57 to 71 months. (R. 885, PID 3409.) Although the district court concluded that it lacked authority to vary downward from that range, it nevertheless analyzed the § 3553(a) factors. The district court explained that Townsend had "rehabilitated himself" and noted his "family ties, responsibilities, the guidance that hopefully he can provide to his two children and the help that he can be to his parents." (R. 885, PID 3409-14.) Based on these factors, the district court concluded that "punishment to a far lesser degree would be sufficient both to promote respect for the law while at the same time not demeaning or trivializing the offense." (R. 885, PID 3409-14.) The district court then sentenced Townsend to imprisonment for a term of 57 months followed by five years of supervised release.

In response to the district court's invitation for objections, defense counsel objected that the sentence was substantively unreasonable. The district court delayed execution of the sentence pending appeal, and this timely appeal followed.


Townsend raises three issues on appeal: whether the district court (1) committed plain error by not understanding its authority to impose a 57-month sentence of incarceration that includes periods of imprisonment and home confinement; (2) abused its discretion by imposing a substantively unreasonable sentence; and (3) erred by treating United States v. Williams, 687 F.3d 283 (6th Cir. 2012), as binding authority.

"Appellate review of sentencing decisions is limited to determining whether they are 'reasonable.'" Gall v. United States, 552 U.S.38, 46 (2007). "[C]ourts of appeals must reviewall sentences—whether inside, just outside, or significantly outside the Guidelines range—under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard." Id. at 41. However, when a party fails to object to a procedural error in response to the district court's invitation for objections, we review the claim for plain error. United States v. Lumbard, 706 F.3d 716, 720 (6th Cir. 2013). Under the plain error standard, the appellant must show that "(1) there is error; (2) the error was 'clear or obvious rather than subject to reasonable dispute'; (3) it affected the defendant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means it affected the outcome of the district court proceedings; and (4) it seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings." United States v. Massey, 663 F.3d 852, 856 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting United States v. Marcus, 560 U.S. 258, 262 (2010)).


Townsend contends his...

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